Life on the Homestead: On Becoming Self-Sufficient

Given any thought to becoming self-sufficient? You — yes, you! — can learn the skills you need. Here’s how one modern homesteader discovered the joys of a self-reliant life.
By Jenna Woginrich
April/May 2009
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If you're thinking of becoming self-sufficient, a good place to start is in your own kitchen. Where does the food you eat come from, and could you produce more of it right in your own backyard?
PHOTO: JENNA WOGINRICH
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Late one night I was grinding coffee and listening to a radio show. There was nothing particularly interesting about this. Most nights I get the percolator ready for the next morning, and the radio is almost always on in the kitchen. But that night I realized something mildly profound: A hundred tiny efforts and decisions had converged right there on the countertop.

The radio was crank-powered, and the coffee grinder was an old hand-turner I had picked up at an antique store. I was standing in the glow of my solar-powered lamp with the aid of some beeswax candles. Suddenly, I realized that nothing I was doing required any outside electricity. I was seeing in the dark, grinding locally roasted beans and listening to renewable energy driven entertainment. As mundane as the situation was, it felt perfect.

Outside the kitchen, my trio of hens was cooing in their hutch. Snap pea pods, hanging heavy on the vine, were climbing up my windowsill. The dogs sighed and stretched on the kitchen floor. The smell of just-crushed coffee beans wafted through the air, giving me a sense of profound comfort. I felt that if the world shut down, we’d just go on grinding and stretching and sighing until we retired to a warm bed. Maybe it was the candlelight, or maybe it was the promise of fresh-brewed coffee in the morning, but in that moment I felt I’d accomplished more than anything I had ever achieved in my professional career.

Seeking and Becoming Self-Sufficient

My first step down the path to self-sufficiency happened when I started learning more about how products get to us consumers. I was considering a vegetarian diet to get in better shape and feel healthier. By reading a few basic books on vegetarianism, I started to learn about the mass production of meat in factory farms and all its related problems. The more I educated myself about how the meals I was eating got to my plate, the more disgusted and disappointed I became. I also became much more appreciative of small farms. The more I read about all the small organic farmers who treated their meat animals humanely and didn’t flood their planting fields with chemicals and pesticides, the less I could stomach buying those foam trays of meat and plastic bags of vegetables from the grocery store.

When you start to comprehend something as basic as how food gets to your plate, you start thinking about how other items find their way to you, too — things such as clothing, electronics, and especially energy. The bloodshed and national security threats caused by depending on foreign oil were loud and clear on the daily news. The scary thing was that I was completely dependent on fossil fuels, and so was everyone I knew. My gas-heated apartment, my groceries from the supermarket, my station wagon parked outside — everything was part of the system. And if the system broke, I was going to be hungry, cold, and immobile. So I threw my hands in the air. I was done with Wal-Mart and Wonder bread. I wanted something real. I wanted a lifestyle that was no longer a part of the problem, or at the very least was constantly striving to be less involved in it. I wanted a more sustainable life.

Learning about homesteading — or the skills associated with it, anyhow — seemed like the solution I desperately craved. I decided to take the reins and start learning how to produce some of the food and resources I used every day. There were obvious problems: I had no idea what I was doing. I had just spent four years in design school learning where to put things on computer screens, and that doesn’t exactly help you bed down a chicken coop. Also, I didn’t have a home to stead. At that time, I lived in a rented farmhouse in Idaho. The only skills I loosely possessed were simple knitting and soap making, which I did for fun, not as part of some self-reliant lifestyle. So I started doing simple research. I pored over books and magazines. I haunted homesteader blogs and online forums. I did whatever I could to edge my way through the crack in the door.

Homesteading Friends

Finding a mentor who could teach me in person made all the difference. My first visit to a co-worker’s farm one Saturday in February of 2007 turned an evening of conversation into an amazing friendship and a year of learning a more self-reliant way of life.

It’s ironic that I didn’t meet Diana Carlin at the farmers market, or even in the produce section of the grocery store, but at a giant corporation. Her cubicle was a few feet from my own at work. A few weeks after we met, she invited me over to take a tour of her family’s homestead (about 20 minutes from the office), meet the animals, and get a personal introduction to raising chickens. Diana’s house was exactly what I imagined a real homestead would look like: a long, cedar-sided house with a chimney that puffed a wispy trail of wood smoke. It was surrounded by meandering homemade fences and was tucked into a spread of hills. A few pairs of cattle plodded around the front yard, grazing on the lawn (I wondered if the Carlins ever had to mow). We spent the daylight hours meeting cows and collecting eggs from her hundreds of hens. After we tended to the animals, washed up, and ate a good meal with her family, we retired to the couches to talk shop.

Maybe it was just my full stomach, but I felt really comfortable. I sat back against a cowhide, which I was told once belonged to Ronald, one of their first farm-bred steers. If my vegetarian friends knew I was in a farmhouse snuggled up next to a blanket with a name, I think they’d be disgusted. But I’m a practical sort of vegetarian. I became one because of the way meat got to the table — the disregard for animal welfare and the assembly line style of death — were too much for me to get any enjoyment from a fast-food hamburger. But here at Floating Leaf Farm, everything was done the way it had been before industrialization. I respected that. I leaned back into Ronald (who was very warm, by the way — who knew cows were so woolly?) and accepted a glass of homemade wine.

Turns out Diana’s husband, Bruce, unconditionally loves three things besides his wife: Italy, wine, and Italy. He’s always been a connoisseur, and as a couple they’ve traveled all over the world visiting vineyards. Bruce’s love of good wine inspired him to make and bottle his own at home. Over the next few months, I heard stories about everything from Italian vineyards to garage bottling operations in the backwoods, all told with equal excitement and devotion. While we were chatting and sipping Syrah, I brought up the topic of honeybees, mentioning that I’d always wanted a hive.

Diana had a few hives, and what started as innocent small talk snowballed into a full-blown crash course in beekeeping. Diana talked excitedly about queens, drones, workers, and nectar flow. I hugged my elbows and nodded, my eyes wide. If it was cold out, I didn’t mind. Thanks to the Carlin family and a few glasses of wine, I was plenty warm — and so inspired. With the animals, the farmhouse, and the happy family, Diana had accomplished everything I’d dreamed of. She was proof positive that a modern homesteader could have it all.

Getting Started

Through the long winter and into spring, Diana helped me get started with my livestock efforts. With her help, I got a small flock of chickens, two long-haired Angora rabbits, and a hive of Italian honeybees to buzz through the garden. On summer nights at her place, there would be campfires with music and friends. On calmer nights, I’d relax in a hammock on the back porch and watch what she called “Farm TV.” It was more engrossing than a Ken Burns documentary and more entertaining than a good sitcom. I’d sway back and forth, watching the calves chase after roosters and the ducks waddle about the creek. Angus and Bella, their two dogs, loped along the back pasture. I was mesmerized. Every so often Diana would come out to check on me and look at the episode I was watching, and she’d say, “Oh, I’ve seen this one already. Damn reruns.” I’d laugh, and she’d pour more red wine into my glass.

Life rolled. On Diana’s homestead I learned everything from pounding fence posts to making and canning tomato sauce. It was the best type of mentorship a person could have. Even though we started off as strangers, I felt like I had become a part of their family. And so, my adventures began. Although I started learning about homesteading in Idaho, I’ve since moved to Vermont, where I’m renting another house. My homesteading skills have continued to grow. Yes, I still work a day job. But these days I also stay busy with my garden, chickens, rabbits, dogs, and sheep!

The same mess of hope and fear lies at the beginning of any adventure, but just deciding to take part in the things that keep you alive might be the most hopeful and fearsome part of it all. It’s rewarding in its simplicity — the garden, the eggs, the music and friends, the new people and conversations on porches along the way. It’s perfect, all of it, if you just let it be. If you can sit back and just take in the experiences, paying attention to every one along the way, I promise you’ll always come back to them. You’ll lie awake at night thinking about the joys of holding your first baby chicks in your palm and the bliss of serving a salad from your own garden. There is something in these actions that fills you up.

I still dream that someday I can support myself without an office job, and maybe someday I will. Until then, I’ll keep producing my own food, tending my small livestock, and canning my own sauce, simply because it makes me feel more in control of my day-to-day life in a way the cubicle never could. I’ve come to understand that what I do in my professional life is not as crucial as I had thought. When I realized that the heavy stuff, the real stuff, was back home on the farm and not at my desk, everything changed. Suddenly the most serious “disaster” at work was nothing. Other employees would act like a deadline was a hurricane, but when you’d spent the morning deciding whether a rabbit with a broken spine should be put down, you couldn’t really stress over PowerPoint presentations. Ironically, it was starting my own homestead that made me happier at work. Go figure.

I think the real trick to finding that sense of satisfaction is to realize you don’t need much to attain it. A window-box garden and a mandolin hanging on the back of the door can be all the freedom you need. If it isn’t everything you want for the future, let it be enough for tonight. Living the way you want has nothing to do with how much land you have or how much you can afford to spend on a new house. It has to do with the way you choose to live every day and how content you are with what you have.

If a few things on your plate every season came from the work of your own hands, you are creating food for your body, and that is enough. If your landlord can be sweet-talked into some small backyard projects, go for it with gusto. If you rode your bike to work, trained your dog to pack, or just baked a loaf of bread, let it be enough. Accepting where you are today — and working toward what’s ahead — is the best you can do. Maybe your gardens and coops will outgrow mine, and before you know it you’ll be trading in your Audi for a pickup. But the starting point is to take control of what you can and smile with how things are. Find your own happiness and dance with it.


This article was adapted from Jenna Woginrich’s new book, Made from Scratch (2008, Storey Publishing). Jenna is a Web designer who blogs for Mother Earth News, The Huffington Post, and her personal blog, Cold Antler Farm. Ready to learn skills for self-sufficient living? Check out Homesteading Schools.


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Post a comment below.

 

greenlady
1/23/2011 4:34:00 PM
To the poster who asked what the angora rabbits are for, it is for their fur. Angora wool comes from angora rabbits. I'm sure the pellets come in handy, too, though. You just can't have too many rabbit droppings! They're the perfect fertilizer, easy to handle because they're pelleted, full of nutrients and they won't burn your garden even if you lay them right on your plants! No, angora rabbits are seldom eaten, mainly because they are so expensive and produce such wonderful fur. Size really doesn't matter when it comes to rabbits, there are breeds that only get up to about 6-8 pounds that really are meat rabbits. It's actually the perfect size if you don't want leftovers.

greenlady
1/23/2011 4:19:57 PM
Hello, Realist. You really need to learn what homesteading is. Real homesteading is living offf the grid, supporting yourself and your family. It is farmwork, plain and simple. Who doesn't want to support their local farmer? I'm guessing the answer would be you. Yes, some homesteaders don't pay taxes, but the vast majority are just hard-working citizens who only want to be independant. Independant of the government, who tells them how to use THEIR LAND, independant of food producers who may not even be there tomorrow, finally, they want to be independant of fools like yourself who only believe civil responsibility is to work 40-60 hours a week and die immediately after social security kicks in, never having had enjoyed their lives. You seem to think haomesteading is a form of welfare, it is exactly the opposite. It is independance, true independance. True realists homestead. Plain and simple.

Felicia Luburich
5/26/2010 5:05:15 PM
FOLKS: It does not have to be all or nothing. There is good in doing good for yoursaelf and others. Giving xcess veggies and eggs to older people on limited incomes is the thing to do, if youy can. When possible evryone shouuld do some outside work, even if it is volunteer. THAT is what will make the world go round correctly. If we keep out of other people's business and quit giving BILLIONS to the very rich and other countries, USA could be a paradise for all.Also, the government must see to it that ALL people stay in school until they learn a trade with which they can support themselves. Germany has an excellent model. I've never seen a down and out person in Germany; or one would could not read and write ( barring developmental problems and I've never seen one of those there either). EVERYONE has enough. I'm not sayying some don't struggle, but no one is living in a tent as they are here in NJ and NY. I never saw anyone living in a trailer either. I think trailer living is a neon sign taht something is wrong... I mean "trailer trash" places. No ne has rats and roaches in their apartments, live on the street pushing a grocery cart, etc.. All improvements are worthwhile doing, including our infrastructure. We are too busy bombing Iraq's and then paying insiders billions to fix it:: which they don't. A march on Washington is in order. They are cutting us but giving themselves raises. There is something horridly wrong with that picture. So be self sufficient.

Robert M Brown
10/1/2009 10:04:37 AM
Realist, there was nothing in this article that required such venom, the author works. this lifestyle means that they are not government supported as they are producing thier own food. they are showing the rest of us how to return to the same, something america has gotten away from. i work ad make decent money in the military, my wife works and makes decent money, w both pay our share of taxes. at home we are slowely transforming our 1/3 acrea to an urban farm. i do this not because i nessesarily need to, i do it because i am uncomfortable with the rising price of food, and the quality has steadily gone down. the amount of added "stuff" is being found to give us cancer, make us sick, or make us fat. if all i can do is grow a lot of veggies, fruit, and chickens for eggs, even if it costs more its safer and healthier for my family. and when i see stuff like katrina happen, i feel a little better if im stocked up on canned food that came from my own backyard. unfortunately the comments you made are the norm from people to lazy to look up what they are talking about. far easier to skip the reading part and run your mouth, and sound like an idiot

Shannon_1
9/30/2009 6:08:29 PM
It's encouraging to read something from the middle ground. Like many of us, Jenna is working at home and away from home. It is a gradual process to peel back the layers of dependency on others to produce our food, clothing and energy-This is a great look at a sustained effort to become more self-sufficient and aware. 'Working' and 'steading can be a difficult balance to maintain. Thanks for a great article. To the 'Realists' out there: Live and let live. That much anger could literally make you sick.

SarahG_2
9/30/2009 11:30:03 AM
Thanks for the great article. I read it in the magazine and went the same day to buy Jenna's book. It was so good! I working on living more sustainably and can't wait to have land so I can have chickens and goats. Her book is wonderful! To PL: Jenna keeps the Angora Rabbits for their fur (you can make it into yarn or sell it to someone else to do it.) To Realist: Why are you even on this website? This is not a life for everyone, but you really have no idea what you are talking about. First of all, the women who wrote the book has a full time job and she works very hard at home (as do many people trying to live more sustainably). And I think you are kind of missing the point of most people who want to be homesteaders--we want to be able to support ourselves and our families without help from society and the government. We want to grow our own healthy food, produce our own electricty, etc.. and not rely on society and the government to support us! When everything goes to $#@# who do you think will be able to survive??? I'm pretty sure it will be the people who actually know how to fend for themselves--not people who can only buy their food, electricty, and everything else! Just something to think about!

Tammy Bunting
5/2/2009 11:56:24 AM
Realist are you my father? You sound just like he does. This way of life is not for everyone and just because some people choose to go off the grid does not mean that they are mooching off the government or tax payers. If you want to be a realist listen to this Wal-mart encourages their employees to get government assistance for everything. So here they are working people and a major company like Wal-mart will not A). pay them enough or B). provide health insurance for them. By the way have you looked at what health insurace cost are now these days. I was working a job that paid me $11 an hour for 30 hours a week and they want $150.00 a payday for family coverage. That leaves $510 before taxes and all the other bills we had to pay to sustain our family. If you can live off the land and become self-sufficent: 1.you will not be placing all those chemicals that are in the foods that you pay your hard earned money for and in turn have to go to the doctor because of what they are doing to your body. You will eat healthier and live better and get off all the meds they have you on. 2. Hey, we are contributing to society by letting you have more gas to run around town with because we are not using it. Have you noticed that when you try to cut back on electicity use the electric company jacks up the rate? Catch 22? Don't be so hard on a way of life that us fat, lazy, wasteful, glutton Americans have gotten away from. Hey do you get off the sofa to turn the channel on the TV or do you use the remote? Are you sure you are not my dad? Learn more about that way of life before knocking it. You might even be surprised.

Mary_75
5/1/2009 2:09:22 PM
Relax Realist! It's definately not a lifestyle for all, but for the folks who do pull it off, I applaud them!

jaqio
4/30/2009 6:18:38 PM
thanks for the article, i dream of an off the grid lifestyle as well although i couldn't give up society completely. i like the though of being self sufficient especially if any disasters come up. realist you may wish to take a laxative, you come across as a mite bitt...um i mean tense.

Realist
4/30/2009 1:30:44 PM
"Homesteading" sounds lovely, but are you prepared to handle your medical expenses when you're old? Are you saving for retirement? For that matter, are you contributing anything at all to society at large, or are you withdrawing into a little circle of identically-minded rejectionist friends and giving up on the rest of the world? Where I live, there are lots of "homesteaders". There are also people who work for a living, and the latter generally end up supporting the former. Can't afford healthcare? No problem, as long as you keep your reported income low enough, you can get help from the state (in other words, the working 1/3 of the population) - they'll pay your way for you. Can't afford to heat your house in the winter? Don't take another job - just apply to HeatShare and let some other poor sucker's work pay to keep you warm.

Rosewood513
4/29/2009 8:53:03 AM
What a lovely article, I am just sitting here enjoying the the sokothing thought of the sustainable life. Six years ago I moved to my own house all by myself at the age of 57, I wanted something better than sitting in my fancy condo watching the world go by. It was the best move I ever made. I had been a vegan and now am a Vegetarian (Veganism is very tough) I love eating vegetables I grow and freeze, can from my garden. I weave, knit, crochet and sew most of my clothes. My electricity has a problem half my house is in the dark but I never got it fixed since I like it this way. I have several chickens in my backyard in the coop I built myself and I gather the eggs every day and share many with my new friends. With all that said, I am very sick right now, I am not saying I am going to eat meat but there is a downside to vegetarianism and eating pure foods. You do not always get all the nutrients from beign a veg, that is why I have chickens, for their eggs, but that was still not enough. I am almost homebound. then I went on line, since my doctor is paying no attention to me, and found my problem. After taking a few Centrum vitamins and a few meals that contained some meat I am getting better. My weight is already returning to normal, after only a few days is dropping and my mood has changed. Now I will be able to enjoy my beautiful "farm like" life in good health.

Billie Kariher-Dyer
4/10/2009 10:12:43 AM
Thank you for such joy in your written voice. Over the years living in my one-bedroom apartment in the Los Angeles area I have been slowly adding what my mother calls "Home Production" skills one by one. Most people that meet me have no concept of a city dweller who makes her own bread, soap, candles, yogurt, cheese, jam, etc. I consider it good living. Thank you for the nice article.

P L
4/10/2009 12:52:27 AM
Are the Angora rabbits there to make rabbit pellets for fertilizer, for the fur, or for meat? They look kind of tiny for meat... I wondered, because aren't Angoras kind of expensive?








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